This week's poll of unlikely voters made a splash, but its main finding—that Obama leads among people who say they probably won't vote in November—is hardly surprising. After all, Republicans have demonstrated a consistent advantage among likely voters; it follows, then, that Democrats should do well among the unlikely ones. But while leading among nonvoters is never the greatest news, the poll also indicated something more troubling for Democrats: Many of these unlikely voters actually voted for Obama in 2008, but plan to stay at home in 2012.
The key question isn't whether unlikely voters lean Obama—which we know—but whether there are unlikely voters who have voted for Democrats in recent elections. While it's impossible to say just how many might stay home, the poll shows that 44 percent of unlikely, registered voters actually turned out and cast ballots for Obama in 2008, compared to 20 percent for McCain and 32 percent who didn't vote at all. Put differently, the poll suggests that Obama '08 voters are more than twice as likely to have departed the electorate compared to their counterparts who supported McCain.
Perhaps tellingly, 23 percent of the unlikely voters who turned out in 2008 are African Americans—more than twice as many as their share of the 2008 electorate. From a certain perspective, this isn't surprising, since African American turnout was historically high in 2008. But Obama's chances depend in no small measure on his ability to again generate massive African American turnout. If African American voting patterns remained at 2004 levels, half of Obama’s 7-point victory would have vanished.
Does Obama have any chance to rekindle the enthusiasm of these voters? While they seem less likely to turn out for Obama than they did four years ago, their support for Obama appears undiminished—particularly among African Americans. Eighty-three percent of unlikely African American voters approve of Obama’s performance, and they preferred Obama over Romney by a 77-6 margin.
And even though many of these voters do not currently intend to vote, there’s reason to think that the right arguments or circumstances could convince many to turn out on Election Day. Compared to other demographic groups, unlikely black voters were far more persuaded by arguments for voting. By a 50 point margin, unlikely African American voters said they were more bothered by letting others vote than the belief that their vote doesn’t matter. Whites selected discomfort with others voting over the view that their votes don’t matter by just a 6 point margin. Perhaps most significantly, 97 percent of unlikely, black Obama supporters said they would “definitely turn out” if they thought their vote “could swing a close national election to Obama.” But perhaps that’s the heart of Obama’s problem: Unlikely black voters expect Obama to win reelection by a 72-15 margin.
Obama's 2008 coalition was bolstered by strong turnout from demographic groups that don't traditionally participate at high rates in national politics. The recent poll of "unlikely voters" suggests that many of these voters have returned to the sidelines. But it also suggests that many are receptive to arguments for voting, perhaps especially in a close race. It's not hard to imagine how the combination of a strong ground operation and a tight race in battleground states could help Obama compensate some of these losses, at least where it counts most.